When excerpts of Nigel Slater's Toast appeared in the UK newspaper the Observer, I was intrigued. As any regular reader of this site will know, I like Nigel a lot. I love his salsa verde. His fish pie. His cheese and onions tart. I could go on, but I won't. I hemmed and hawed about buying his autobiography, though. It's not that I'm incurious or that I don't want to know what led a favorite role model down his path of life. I do. But Nigel Slater, while very open and sensual in describing his food, is fairly reticent about his private life in his column for the Observer. He has a cat. He has a garden. He occasionally says "we" and it's fairly clear it's not the royal we. But though I've been reading his column for many years now, I can safely say I know much more about his favorite cheese than what makes his mind tick. So, as I say, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I felt I owed it to the man to support him stepping out of the food world. On the other, I doubted his ability to come out in the open in the way that an interesting biography needs to do. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying a good autobiography or biography needs to have salacious details or scandal. But it has to leave you feeling like you know the author better.
Well, our good friend Barrett took the matter out of my hands. He bought me a signed first edition for one of my many birthday presents. Lucky me to have such good friends! Lucky me to have another modern first with a signature. I happily jumped right into it.
And since this is a review (i.e. looking back not forwards) you'll be wanting to know, not what I thought I would think but what I did think. I thought it was a fascinating way to approach the past: almost entirely through memories of food. I thought it was well written, as all Nigel's work is. It was painfully class-conscious, which surprised me though it probably shouldn't have. And at the end of it, as expected, I didn't feel like I knew Mr. Slater any better than a careful reading of his recipes has made me.
The story is completely food-centric, each episode tide to a vivid food memory. You feel as though this is the only way that Nigel can approach intimate matters: though the lens of a food memory. And although it's an interesting perspective, it left me feeling like the story was being told coldly, baldly.
Perhaps I was at too much of a disadvantage with my American food background. I had to consult the glossary at the back of my American edition frequently and guess the nature of some of the other kinds of food. This means I probably missed out on a lot of what made the book vivid for Brits of Nigel's generation. But at the end of the day, although I was glad I read it (and really glad to have a signed copy by my hero) I felt most of my misgivings were justified. Nigel managed to tell the facts of his story but all the emotional content seemed to be tied up in the food. And much as I love food, it left me a bit cold.
Toast, by Nigel Slater, Fourth Estate, 2005.